By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
NEW YORK, July 31 -- They were one of those New York couples: good-looking and ridiculously gifted. She had a voracious mind that intimidated nearly everyone, and blond hair she kept in braids. He was a certified art star, with appearances at the Whitney Museum and a CD cover for Beck among his lengthy list of credits.
Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake were a formidable pair, and by all accounts, soul mates for the last 12 years. So a few weeks ago, when Duncan committed suicide at the age of 40, friends and family knew that Blake, 35, was devastated. No one, though, knew how devastated -- not his mother in Takoma Park, where he grew up, nor the curator putting together an upcoming solo show in Washington at the Corcoran.
A week later, on July 17, witnesses on Rockaway Beach in New York saw a man take off his clothes and walk into the ocean. On Monday, police confirmed that Blake had taken his own life, leaving behind a note that authorities would describe but not quote. "It was basically about wanting to be reunited with Theresa Duncan," said Paul Browne, a spokesman for the New York Police Department. "It referenced her suicide and said that he hoped to rejoin her."
Inevitably, there is the question of why, and with that question the search for clues. Those close to Duncan and Blake seem to be neatly divided between those who knew that something was terribly wrong with them -- having heard the couple talk obsessively about a plot against them hatched by Scientologists and others -- and those who had no idea. For the former, interacting with Duncan and Blake became almost impossible, as paranoia about phone taps and stalkings came to dominate their lives. For the latter, there is nothing but shock.
"I missed it completely," said Glenn O'Brien, a friend and longtime Manhattan art world denizen. "They had a lot of friends, but they were ultimately very private people. I once heard her say something about Scientology that sounded sort of improbable to me, but I just sort of let it go. It was like a can of worms you didn't want to open."
Blake leaves behind a body of work that is voluminous, given his age. He is most renowned for what were often called moving paintings, essentially a hybrid of film and painting that he composed on computers and packaged in DVDs. His dealer in New York described him as the first to make art for a plasma TV screen.
"Now it's an obvious thing for an artist to do, but people would go home and basically turn on a Jeremy Blake painting," said the dealer, Lance Kinz of Kinz, Tillou and Feigen. "It would be yellow and red at one point, then blue and green at another, all of it a kind of ambient abstraction."
The work was described by critics as striking, gorgeous and new. Blake was invited to the Whitney Biennial in 2002 and 2004 and had solo shows in San Francisco and Madrid. But Blake didn't confine himself to galleries and museums. The movie director Paul Thomas Anderson drafted him to create art for "Punch-Drunk Love." Beck hired Blake to create the art for the album "Sea Change." Blake worked for Rockstar Games, the maker of video game hits including Grand Theft Auto.
"He was a great artist, an artist for the 21st century," said Jonathan Binstock, the curator of the Corcoran show. "He had his hand in music videos, in gaming, in Hollywood and in the world of contemporary art that you find in the best museums in the world. He didn't draw distinctions between those industries. He was brilliant, concentrated and deeply committed."
Blake met Duncan in 1995, in Washington, at a Fugazi concert. (He was friendly with Nation of Ulysses, another important band in the D.C. punk scene, and can be heard introducing the group to a live audience on the 1992 album, "Plays Pretty for Baby.")
Physically, Duncan was a knockout, but it was her mind that left the most lasting impact. She wrote a blog called the Wit of the Staircase, and it is a roiling tour of a capacious mind, bouncing from lowbrow to high, from Kate Moss to Franz Kafka, from film to the history of electricity. She was best known for CD-ROMs she created, works that were targeted at girls, a market she considered neglected. One of those CD-ROMs, "Chop Suey," was narrated by David Sedaris and described in The Washington Post as "one of the finest stories-on-CD ever produced."
"She seemed to know about everything," Binstock recalled. "She actually was a little intimidating, and I'm not easily intimidated."
Duncan and Blake didn't just fall for each other; they grew so close they all but intertwined. "When you called, they were always both on the phone," said Jason Meadows, an artist and friend. "When you e-mailed, they'd take turns writing back. At some point, I realized it doesn't matter which of them I'm communicating with. They were that tight."
One of their shared passions, friends said, was a distressingly paranoid view of the world. The two would describe plots by the government, plots by Scientologists, people tailing them, breaking into their home. All of it sounded so far-fetched that it was easy to think occasionally that they were kidding. They weren't.
"It was like a Tom Clancy novel," said Meadows, "except that was very real to them. And if you said, 'This can't be true,' there'd be a lot of anger and you'd be exiled. That happened to me several times and I had to work to regain their friendship."
Gradually they seemed to slip into some sort of shared psychosis, and they had each other to reinforce delusions that friends were powerless to talk them out of. Many of those friends bailed out, frustrated and bewildered. But for all the tumult, the pair remained focused and Blake, at least, was applying himself to work, said Binstock. Duncan could be prickly and acerbic and sometimes one would say something loopy, friends said, but the couple generally kept it together.
"Obviously there was much more going on than any of us realized, but he never said anything that suggested there was a problem," said Anne Schwartz Delibert, Blake's mother, who lives in Takoma Park. "He was devoted to her. He was a loyal caretaker."
It was Blake who discovered Duncan's body -- police say she killed herself with a combination of pills and alcohol -- and even in the days before he walked into the ocean, friends and colleagues heard nothing from him they found alarming. He was distraught, but seemed to be moving forward and planning for the future.
Then again, speculating about the motives of any suicide is hard enough. Trying to figure out two of them seems even trickier, and given the complexity of the people involved, nearly all the answers seem kind of trite. Duncan seemed to anticipate this very theme, when a few weeks ago on her blog she quoted Kafka:
We are as forlorn as children lost in the wood. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the grief that is in me and what do I know of yours? And if I were to cast myself down before you and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful?